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Privacy Prescience

Privacy Prescience

By Lorena O'Neil



Before Edward Snowden there was Sam Seaborn.

By Lorena O'Neil

Whistleblower, schwhistleblower. Instead of waiting for Edward Snowden to tell us real privacy doesn’t exist, we should have paid closer attention to The West Wing

In the ninth episode of Aaron Sorkin’s political TV series, Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, goes off on a mini-rant about privacy. He, President Bartlet and Toby Ziegler are discussing a potential Supreme Court justice nominee, Peyton Harrison III. Harrison had argued that the Constitution does not protect the right to privacy, an issue Seaborn thought was just a wee bit important.

The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. 

“It’s not just about abortion; it’s about the next 20 years. ’20s and ’30s, it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s, it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. Moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?” proclaimed Seaborn. Preach! NSA, are you listening? Of course you are.

This episode, entitled “The Short List,” aired on November 24, 1999. Let that marinate for a moment: 1999. To put this into perspective, it is the same year that Google’s founders moved out of their garage office. Cell phones looked like this. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) had passed just three years earlier.

Fast-forward to now. Cameras come with almost every cell phone; Google Glass has arrived, along with new privacy debates; we still ponder who is gay and who isn’t; and there’s this small thing called Prism that has raised a red flag or two – red flags about privacy on cell phones and the Internet, no less.

This wasn’t the only time The West Wing was politically prescient. In fact, the ethnic minority candidate who took over the White House at the end of the series was modeled after then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama. While Matt Santos’ character was inspired by Obama, Obama’s 2008 campaign ended up following in the footsteps of Santos’ fictional campaign. Obama’s chief campaign strategist at the time even joked to West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie, writing, “We’re living your scripts!”

Of course, it is easy to look back and see what was prophetic about Sorkin and his writing staff’s plot lines, and not everything laid out in The West Wing came true. We are still waiting on pennies to be removed from circulation, for example. However, the prophetic quality didn’t stop with The West Wing. Sorkin’s latest series, The Newsroom, centered this past season on chemical weapons.

So, Sorkin, think you can look into that crystal ball of yours and let us know what happens in 2016? Thanks.

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